Whereas the Honourable the General Congress, impressed with a grateful sense of the goodness of Almighty God … hath thought proper … to recommend to the several states that Thursday the 9th of December next be appointed a day of publick and solemn thanksgiving and prayer …
I do therefore by authority from the General Assembly issue this my proclamation, hereby appointing Thursday the 9th day of December next, a day of publick and solemn thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God, earnestly recommending to all the good people of this commonwealth, to set apart the said day for those purposes, and to the several Ministers of religion to meet their respective societies thereon, to assist them in their prayers, edify them with their discourses, and generally to perform the sacred duties of their function, proper for the occasion.
Thomas Jefferson’s Proclamation as Governor, November 11, 1779
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
The Continental Congress requested the States to issue their individual proclamations for a day of thanksgiving and prayer on December 9. America’s war for independence was continuing, and its successful conclusion was far from guaranteed. Jefferson was Governor of Virginia at the time, and he issued the summons.
The bulk of Jefferson’s proclamation contains the language offered by the Congress. While he would have agreed with the great majority of sentiments expressed, he would have taken exception to some, particularly with regard to Christianity. Because this proclamation was issued over his name, some might claim all of those sentiments were his. Not so. Jefferson was thankful and encouraged gratitude in others, but he issued this proclamation in his official capacity, not as an individual.
The closing paragraph above was Jefferson’s own words. He recommended the day as a religious one, for thanksgiving and prayer, and for ministers to assist their congregants toward that end. Jefferson was not anti-religion. He very much supported the moral influence religion offered to its adherents and to society, but he drew a hard line against any creed (or individual) dictating what people must think or do.
In some unpublished drafts written as President, he specifically declined to make such proclamations, believing them to be religious in nature. As head of the national government, he believed the Constitution forbade his making those recommendations. Those expressions were the province of the states and religious leaders only.